At the end of a winding driveway lined with eucalypts, nestled on acreage in the rolling hills of Bellbrae is the home and studio of Jenny Crompton, who recently won the Deadly Art Award as part of the 2014 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards held at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Her property is a peaceful oasis of bushland with the pleasant warble of magpies and other birdsong ringing through the valley. Inside her studio, artworks in various states of progress are crammed into every nook and cranny: abstract paintings inspired by macro photography of seaweed lean against the exposed brick wall, boxes of dried seaweed which Jenny calls “shrapnel” or “fluff” sit on makeshift shelves, and long black strands of seaweed, like unravelled cassette tapes, hang from a piece of dowel. In one corner a pile of books about art and aboriginal history totter precariously.
Jenny has lived in Bellbrae with her partner and son for four years, devoting many hours to her art which is informed by natural materials and expresses her relationship to the land. She has been experimenting with different varieties of seaweed, collected from nearby beaches, to create sculptural forms. It is a process of trial and error, both laborious and unique. Now all the hard work has paid off for her with the $30,000 Deadly Art Award win.
Jenny Crompton with her award winning work Gathering at Godocut at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Photo: Nigel Clements
Jenny’s winning work, Gathering at Godocut, is crafted from seaweed and binder. It comprises twenty-five long shapes similar in form to aboriginal tapping sticks and message sticks. These delicate and intricately laced sculptures, in pink, black, white and brown, appear to hover, gently swaying as people move past them. Her work pays tribute to her indigenous ancestors of the Wada Wurrung people.
“My piece is about celebration,” Jenny explains from her studio. “The fineness of these people – magnificent and resourceful. My work is celebrating them and I have tried to use natural materials in a way that hasn’t been seen before.”
Jenny’s art practice is deeply personal and conveys a strong sense of place and connection to the past. The title of the work plays on the word ‘gathering’, referring to her practice of collecting objects from the beach but also to the gathering of her ancestors who once frequented the Point Addis area, called ‘Godocut’ in Wada Wurrung language.
“Collecting the seaweed before it disintegrates resonates with what happened to Wada Wurrung cultural life,” Jenny says. She has been learning everything she can about the Wada Wurrung since discovering her aboriginal ancestry about five years ago.
“I have just finished reading a book about the Bunting Dale mission in Birregurra. It is highly informative and incredibly devastating. It was a horrible book to read but it had to be read. Basically the white settlers just had the right to kill.” The book, Campfires at the Cross, by Heather Le Griffon gives an account of aboriginal-settler relationships in south western Victoria in the 19th century and in doing so reveals the horrifying injustices many aboriginals experienced at the hands of the colonists.
A self confessed “fiddler” and avid beachcomber, Jenny’s art practice is process driven. She says the best part is scouring the beach for interesting finds.
“When I collect things on the beach everything else just shuts out. It is so relaxing to do. You let everything go. That is the really special part of gathering,” Jenny says. “By gathering and preparing seaweeds I acquaint myself with activities that have been happening here for thousands of years.”
Seaweed is a tricky medium to work with and Jenny has had to endure many failures along the way as she developed her technique. She is fascinated by the seaweed’s different shapes and subtle hues and she uses a variety of drying methods to preserve the colour. Once the seaweed has dried on sheets of glass, which can take up to 12 months, Jenny rolls the seaweed in a watery binder and slips it over a foam mould, sometimes redoing it three or four times to achieve the right strength and consistency.
Besides pioneering new ways of working with unusual materials, Jenny also works in more traditional mediums such as paint and ink. Over the years she has developed her gift for making things to include basket weaving, woodcarving and metalwork. She travelled extensively in Indonesia where she learnt traditional woodcarving techniques and spent time in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, learning how to make filigree jewellery. “I’m a big soldering lady,” she laughs. “Filigree is one of my favourite artforms.” Her affinity for filigree can be seen in the intricate lacelike structure of Gathering at Godocut.
Jenny was surprised to win the Deadly Art Award but gratified that the judges could see what she was trying to express.
“I am still in shock. Having your work judged is a scary thing. I have worked really hard and I have tried to present what I feel, in here,” Jenny says, tapping her chest. “The judges got everything I said.”
The fragility and strength of the work impressed the three judges, who independently chose it as the winning piece. They said they were impressed by the “delicate construction techniques, the sensory elements and the carefully considered installation”.
This year’s judges were Tina Baum, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, National Gallery of Australia; Tom Mosby, CEO, Koorie Heritage Trust; and Carole Wilson, Senior Lecturer, Honours and Research Degrees Co-ordinator, Faculty of Education and Arts, Federation University Australia.
More than $50,000 in prizes were presented at the Awards ceremony, with Wonthaggi artist Patrice Mahoney receiving the $5,000 Federation University Australia Acquisitive Award and Deanne Gilson of Brown Hill, Ballarat, receiving the Australian Catholic University Acquisitive Award, also with a $5,000 prize.
Other Award winners included Footscray artist Paola Balla, and Glennys Briggs, a Victorian-born artist now based in Maudsland, Queensland, who took out the Copyright Agency Limited’s Awards, for three dimensional works and works on paper, respectively.
The exhibition of the 35 shortlisted works is on display at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until 5 October 2014. The exhibition features a diverse range of works including basket weaving, woodwork, photography, painting, video and sculpture.
Indigenous art award winners (left to right) Paola Balla, Patrice Mahoney, Cynthia Hardie, Deanne Gilson, Jenny Crompton and Lisa Waup. Photo: Nigel Clements
If you can’t get up to Ballarat this week you can still see the works online here and cast your vote for the $2,500 Arts Victoria Peoples’ Choice Award. Voting closes tomorrow Monday 29 September so you will have to be quick!